Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Finding Ourselves in History

To the old aphorism “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know,” I would like to add: “…and neither does anybody else.” None of our best historians understand all of history. They specialize. They study what happened in a particular time and place. They try to be objective in a Jack Webb-style: “Just the facts, Ma’am,” but that can make for dull reading. So they adopt the writing style of a storyteller. They humanize the main characters, illuminating both virtues and flaws. They make judgements. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t sell many books. If they’re also teachers, and many are, their students would fall asleep.

Like the late star of Dragnet, historians are trying to solve a mystery, but unlike him they’re not going to arrest a perpetrator. They may, however, tarnish a reputation here and burnish one there. Such may be their intent when beginning their research. The best historians try hard to be unbiased, but they know they’re human and will always fall short of perfect impartiality. Others only offer a pretense of impartiality.

Bias or fact?

Another human factor that may work to distort history I will call peer pressure. When historian colleagues all tend to interpret the events of a particular time and place in a particular way, there’s a strong tendency to go along. One might dare to offer a slightly different shade of meaning but to go further would risk being shunned or even attacked.

When I taught history I’d do what many teachers do and parse the word, suggesting it can mean: “his story.” as if there may be other stories offering different perspectives on the same events.  Feminists like to parse the word too, but emphasizing the “his” part as biased in favor of men, and that students might want to think of it as “herstory” as well.

Never was I taught history as a separate subject until fourth grade when Sister Charles Paul passed out the first history books at St. William’s School in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. By the end of September I’d read all of it and longed for more, but no more came along. I don’t remember getting any more history texts until I went to high school and had Western Civilization I and II. Then it was US History in junior year and that was it until college. Never did I sense a love of history in my teachers though. Many high schools gave US History classes to football coaches who had little or no interest in them.

After my risk of getting drafted declined in 1971 I dropped out of college, then went back in ’73 after deciding to become a teacher. For that I needed degrees and took a few more uninspiring history courses, so my interest in history had to be sated by my own research. After being horrified watching the Adolph Eichmann trial with my father in 1961, I learned all I could about the Holocaust. Then the Vietnam War affected everyone in my demographic as my best friend and others I grew up were sent there. Some died and all were profoundly changed, so I learned all I could about that as well. Thus did those two phases of history became my own specialities. 


When students came to me with little or no historical perspective or interest, I devised methods to help them to fix themselves in time. Digital imagery became available in the ’90s, so I encouraged students to bring in pictures of their ancestors to be scanned. Then they digitally constructed  horizontal timelines of the 20th century with pictures of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents across the top above the years corresponding to their lifespans. Across the bottom they put images of major world events occurring during those lifepans. Just as Vietnam had dominated my generation, World War II and the Great Depression affected the lives of their grandparents and/or great-grandparents. World War I affected their great-great-grandparents, and so forth. They could also import pictures of presidents who served during those lifespans. 

Ellis Island

After that exercise, study of relevant historical occurrences became personalized. My hope was they would gain a deeper understanding of how world and national events can have enormous effects on the lives of ordinary people. Many students were thus motivated to question surviving ancestors about those events. Thus they’d fix family members in time and gain a deeper understanding of where they fit in too.

Last week’s column concerned fixing students in space by learning geography. My hope was they would leave my class having merged the two skills. They would be able to visualize where their ancestors came from, know when they came here, and even why. They’d be motivated to research further back in time as well as further away in space, and then realize how they came to be here — living and speaking English in rural Maine.


Anonymous said...

Dates and activities - can usually be classified as facts.
Interpretation, reasons, causation, lessons learned - all opinion.

To make any use of historical facts it must be interpreted and this is subjective.

Anonymous said...


A very interesting, relevant piece given the current events and our country's struggles.

Thanks for writing, Mr. Tom!

Brian said...

Good columns when you leave out the politics!

Anonymous said...

If you are looking for ideas for next week's column now would be perfect timing for one on hypocrisy. You could write about whether Trump and his mob will start chanting "Lock him up!" about Kushner, you can reminisce about Price chastising Pelosi on "flying over our country in your luxury jet", and you can go on and on about how suddenly so many conservatives are now trying to squelch free speech in the NFL. Ripe pickings!

Anonymous said...

And let's not forget Trump and so many conservatives trying to make a big deal about Obama's golfing! Trump: "I won't have time for golf"

And the one whining about "fake news" was the biggest promoter of birtherism!

How about disaster relief? Republican politicians in Texas are asking for immediate federal help for their constituents in the Houston area, yet five years ago when Hurricane Sandy battered the Northeast, those very same Republicans were unwilling to help.

Let's not forget Paul Ryan and other republicans that railed against the prospect of voting without a CBO report during the Obamacare debate. "I don’t think we should pass bills that we haven’t read, that we don’t know what they cost,” Ryan said on MSNBC in 2009. And in fact, the Democratic-led House only voted on the bill after it received a CBO analysis. But the republicans suddenly became eager to try and ram through their crappy bill.

Anonymous said...

The teaching of history is slowly being phased out in the U.S. and that is wrong. People need to understand where we came from to make good decisions about the future.

There is some opinion in all history but it must be based in fact. I agree with liberals that we must talk about people other than white men. On the other hand, that can get so out of control that history ends up being a bunch of just so stories. You need balance.


Jared said...

Well, it's obvious why anonymous wants to remain anonymous. May I suggest it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than it is to open your mouth and remove all doubt. Let me sight one example: Sheriff Arpaio's posse that demonstrated without doubt that Mohammobama's birth certificate is a forgery. Cite the facts please Mr./Mrs. Anon and debate otherwise please if you can. Where are all his records? What's his real social security number? Etc.

Jared said...

I'm referring to the "Anonymous" that's trashing Trump. Sorry to all you other anonymous people out there!